Shweta Narayan, Co-ordinator, Healthy Energy Initiative, India, writes on the struggle of Bhopal Gas Tragedy survivors for justice and dignity in life, 35 years after the incident.
It was the midnight of December 2nd and 3 rd of 1984 that went down the history as the world’s worst industrial disaster. 40 tonnes of deadly Methyl Isocyanate (MIC), a chemical 500 times more poisonous than Hydrogen cyanide, leaked from a pesticide plant in Bhopal killing almost 8000 people in the first three days and maiming more than half a million for life. The plant was owned and operated by Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), a US Multinational corporation. The disaster occurred because of the cost cutting measures of the company that compromised on the essential safety mechanisms in the plant. Vital safety systems were shut off, almost half the workers were sacked, and warnings of the corporation’s own safety audit ignored. It is said that the company saved approximately USD 50 (INR 3,500*) a day by incorporating these costs cutting measures.
Did the survivors get compensation?
It turns out UCC was dumping toxic wastes within the factory compound since 1969 and pumping hazardous waste into wrongly designed ponds from 1977 onwards thus contaminating the groundwater in the area.
The Indian government filed a USD 3 billion (INR 21,526.2 crores) compensation claim from UCC. UCC used its political clout to force the Indian Government to accept a paltry sum of USD 470 million (INR 3,372.4 crores) as final settlement in the matter. Till date, most of the survivors of the disaster received only USD 350 (INR 25,000) as compensation for personal injuries and the families of the dead received USD 14,000 (INR 10 lakh) for each death. The government agencies have downplayed the death figures and extent of health injuries to tailor the overall damage to fit the meager settlement given by UCC.
What happened to the factory and the site?
While the gas disaster took place in December 1984, parallelly another disaster was slowly unfolding– that was the environmental disaster. It turns out UCC was dumping toxic wastes within the factory compound since 1969 and pumping hazardous waste into wrongly designed ponds from 1977 onwards thus contaminating the groundwater in the area. In addition, as an immediate aftermath of the disaster, UCC shut down the factory and absconded abandoning all the toxic raw material and waste inside the factory. These eventually decomposed within the factory further contaminating the soil and groundwater.
Analysis of groundwater by government agencies have reported the presence of toxic chemicals, pesticides and heavy metals that are known to accumulate in the bodies of exposed persons and cause damage to the brain, lungs, liver, kidneys and genetic material. The contaminated site is yet to be cleaned and as per records of the Supreme Court of India there are close to 100 thousand residents of 48 communities, within five kilometer radius of the factory site, that are currently affected by contamination of groundwater.
Were the guilty punished?
In the last 35 years, the US government has sheltered the fugitives from the criminal case on the disaster and refused to pay heed to the concerns of the survivors. UCC was charged with manslaughter and other grievous offences but has failed to appear in the Indian courts till date. Indian courts have officially declared UCC as absconders. UCC was taken over by another US multinational Dow Chemicals in 2001. Even though Dow Chemicals has been summoned by the Indian Courts, it has failed to appear in the matter.
The US government continues to violate the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty with India and is protecting Dow Chemical from being summoned before the Bhopal District court. International organizations such as the UN and WHO, that are seen taking a proactive role on environmental issues like air pollution and climate change, hardly raised any concerns in the case of the ongoing man-made disaster in Bhopal.
Back home, irrespective of the political party in power there has been an unbroken and close nexus between the Indian government and the corporations in question in the last 35 years. Successive Prime Ministers have justified official leniency towards UCC on grounds that such a policy was necessary to ensure continued investment of US capital in India. Political parties have never paid serious attention to the unfolding disaster. They have even gone seeking donations from Dow Chemical and welcoming their investment in the country disregarding its Bhopal liabilities.
What is the state of survivors today?
Over 30,000 people are dead and more than 150,000 persons continue to battle chronic diseases caused due to toxic exposure in December 1984. Rates of cancers, tuberculosis and fatal diseases of the kidneys continue to be much higher among the gas affected population compared to national rate. Children of gas exposed parents are born with physical growth and mental development disorders and birth defects, at much higher rates compared to a control population.
Majority of the affected population could not continue with their usual occupation after the disaster as a results thousands of families continue to live in abject poverty and remain undernourished and hungry.
What are the survivors seeking today?
An overwhelming majority of the survivor-activists are women, among the poorest and those worst affected by the disaster. The survivors along with several survivor-led organizations have been fighting for justice and a life of dignity for over three decades. Their demands are clear, they are –
- The Indian government must make Union Carbide / Dow Chemical pay additional compensation to the Bhopal survivors and a compensation for health and environmental damage caused by contamination of soil and groundwater.
- The US government must serve the summons from the Bhopal District Court upon Dow Chemical without delay. The Indian government must ensure that the criminal trial of accused Indian corporate executives is concluded within the next six months.
- The Indian government must ensure that standardized treatment protocols are developed for gas exposure related chronic diseases. The Madhya Pradesh state government must ensure that free medical care is available to residents who drank contaminated groundwater for six months or more.
- The Indian and MP state governments must ensure that a monthly pension of Rs. 3000/- is paid to all women widowed by the disaster and all those left without means to support themselves as a consequence of gas exposure.
- The Indian government must ensure comprehensive scientific assessment of the depth, spread and nature of soil and groundwater contamination in and around the abandoned pesticide factory. Union Carbide / Dow Chemical must pay for the clean-up of the soil and groundwater up to international standards.
For more details visit: www.bhopal.net
* USD to INR exchange rate of 2019 and not 1984-86 applied.
Image Credit: PTI
The views expressed are the author's own.